Military precision on the harbour
AS WE stand on the bridge of the coal ship Brilliant Venus, the sun has gone down. The vessel weighs 55,000 tonnes with its ballast water and is worth more than $40 million. Powerful tug boats are manoeuvring her inch by inch toward the jetty at RG Tanna Coal Terminal.
Captain Ian Williams and Captain Kyaw Myint Aung are walking along the bridge, some 40 metres high, relaying instructions to the tugs, the sailors, and workers on the jetty.
It suddenly occurs to me that this is one of those moments when a journalist should keep his mouth shut and stand out of the way.
My day of adventure had begun four hours earlier, in the quiet surrounds of a helicopter hanger on the opposite side of Gladstone Airport.
Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ) had offered me the chance to accompany one of their pilots on a job in Gladstone Harbour.
The task of MSQ's Gladstone-based pilots is to venture out beyond the harbour, via helicopter or boat, board the enormous ships and guide them in.
MSQ wanted me to witness the coordination and precision that ensure safe shipping on our harbour. The resulting trip was unforgettable.
CAPTAIN Ian Williams's job brings with it a lot of responsibility. As a senior marine pilot for Maritime Safety Queensland,
leave Gladstone Harbour by helicopter, land on the enormous coal ships waiting to come in, meet the ship's captain and guide the ship in. Ships' captains are highly qualified, but there is no substitute for local knowledge, and that's where Gladstone's 24 MSQ pilots come into their own.
Capt Williams collects me at 3pm, (or as they say in the trade, 1500), and we head to a helipad on the far side of Gladstone Airport. We take off about 1540.
Once we fly beyond the harbour, we see a group of about six bulk carrier ships, all waiting for their turn to enter the harbour.
We spot Brilliant Venus and land on the big "H" at 1600. Off the side of the helipad, a man's face appears with a half grin.
He takes Capt Williams's bag and we follow him along the massive deck, go indoors and weave our way up three or four flights of stairs and arrive at the bridge, where we are greeted by the smiling Burmese Capt Kyaw Myint Aung.
Now the important business begins.
Capt Williams asks a series of questions about the Brilliant Venus and the two captains communicate easily and efficiently.
Capt Williams issues some instructions for his Burmese colleague, who passes them on to his crew. The
Brilliant Venus enters a channel which, to me, looks very narrow. We cruise at about 11.5 knots and Capt Williams gives occasional instructions for slight steering adjustments.
After about an hour, we enter the harbour and turn northwest. Two tug boats, each of 5438 horsepower, arrive to guide us in and we continue cruising, familiar landmarks passing slowly on our port side: Boyne Smelter, QAL, Barney Point, and Gladstone Mariner. By the time we get near RG Tanna Coal Terminal about 1810, the light is fading.
We are pointing in the wrong direction to pull up at the jetty, so the tugs swivel around and spin the 254m -long ship 180 degrees. The two captains stand outside on the bridge, looking down at proceedings and issuing instructions by VHF radio.
It is fascinating to watch the clockwork precision with which all this happens.
Once the ship is parallel to the jetty, the tugs push it slowly sideways.
Men at work on the deck and the jetty prepare themselves and ropes are drawn from the ship to the jetty.
By the time Capt Williams is satisfied all is secure at 1900, we are surrounded by darkness and the bright lights of the coal terminal.
The two of us stroll down some stairs and step on to the jetty.
As we pass some workers, I feel like pointing to the captain and saying, "It's okay, I'm with him".